Jordan: The Middle Eastern Kingdom With an Ancient City Carved in Rock
“Welcome to Jordan!”
Visitors will hear this refrain more times than they can count—shouted from car windows, as a greeting from waiters, from every taxi driver, when getting their passports stamped at the airport, while walking down the street...
Jordan has a reputation for being one of the friendliest countries in the Middle East, and hey, some stereotypes are true. This phrase is so common it’s become a joke among tourists who visit often or expats who continue to hear the refrain though they’ve lived there for years. The welcoming attitude means tourists shouldn’t be afraid to ask for directions, advice, or to accept a dinner invite or other acts of kindness from Jordanians.
The land of the Hashemite Kingdom
What is now the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has been inhabited since the Paleolithic period. It was ruled first by the Nabateans, then by the Romans and Ottomans. After the Great Arab Revolt against the Ottomans during World War I, it became a British protectorate until achieving independence in 1946.
Today Jordan is a constitutional monarchy, like the United Kingdom and Spain, but the king has broader powers than in those countries. King Abdullah II has been in power since 1999 and is fairly popular both domestically and abroad. Queen Rania is perhaps more popular, or at least more famous. She’s well known for advocacy work in health and education worldwide, and has worked with Michelle Obama and other leaders to campaign for children’s education. She and King Abdullah met at a dinner party while Rania was working for Apple in Amman.
Channeling your inner Indiana Jones
The archaeological site of Petra is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and Jordan’s most-visited tourist attraction. The ancient Nabatean city dates back to around 300 BC. With its towering pink sandstone walls, into which intricate temples and tombs are carved, it has the nickname “Rose City.”
Those who visit can spend hours making their way through narrow passageways and tombs, gazing at carvings and hiking the hundreds of steps to the Treasury, a temple with a Greek facade.
For now, take this guided virtual tour narrated by Jordan’s Queen Rania or see it on screen in films including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Mummy Returns, and Aladdin.
Jordan is the world’s 8th largest olive oil producer. Olive oil is drizzled on everything, and almost every family has at least one backyard olive tree that they pick olives from to take to their local press.
Now one man is attempting to bring Jordanian olive oil to the world stage. Al Maida olive oil, founded by Ziad Bilbeisi, is used at Michelin-starred restaurants in London and has won several International Olive Oil Competition awards.
Liberal olive oil use is partly why Jordan also has some of the best hummus in the world. It’s extremely creamy, without any of the grittiness sometimes found in brands sold in American grocery stores. Find the best at Hashem’s, where you can feast on unlimited hummus, falafel, fol, and bread for about $2.
In the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia
Near Petra in southern Jordan, Wadi Rum is one of the world’s largest sand deserts and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Nabateans inhabited Wadi Rum centuries ago, but today it’s home to the Zalabieh tribe. This Bedouin tribe knows the desert inside and out and organizes tours for tourists to trek across sandstone pillars, go dune bashing, enjoy traditional dinners and dancing, and sleep under the stars.
The valley is the setting for the book Seven Pillars of Wisdom by British officer T.E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence spent many nights sleeping under the stars and traversing Wadi Rum, which he described as “vast, echoing and God-like,” in the early 1900s. Lawrence’s life was the basis of the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia and while the movie is problematic for its use of non-Arab actors to portray Arab people, this clip shows off some of the desert’s spectacular scenery.
Dig in, literally
Mansaf—a rice dish made with lamb, a fermented yogurt called jameed, almonds, and spices including cardamom, saffron, and cumin—is Jordan’s national dish.
It’s eaten communally with your hands, a custom that goes back to Bedouin tradition. Historically, when families or tribes fought, the head of one tribe would visit the other to talk it through. The host would sacrifice a lamb and cook mansaf out of respect for the visitor, and they ate the meal together to end the argument.
Etiquette is important. Eat with your right hand, and keep your left hand behind your back. Eating rice with your hands can sound tricky, but it’s actually pretty easy, especially because the yogurt makes the rice sticky. Grab a small handful, squeeze, then gently roll it around in your hand to shape it. Because you’ll be dipping your fingers into the tray again, be careful not to let them touch your mouth. Try making mansaf at home to get some practice.
A land of refugees
As of December 2019, Jordan was home to 744,795 refugees, from Syria, Palestine, Yemen, Iraq, and Sudan, among other countries.
In addition, there are millions of stateless Palestinians living in the country. More than half of Jordan’s 6.3 million population is of Palestinian origin, including Queen Rania. Yet, many of them have been denied nationality or had their nationality withdrawn since 1988, according to Human Rights Watch.
Palestinian culture and Jordanian culture are deeply intertwined, from recipes to textiles to an insistence on hospitality, but Palestinians in Jordan have little access to government positions, and therefore power. It’s a complicated situation, with some lauding Jordan for taking in millions of Palestinian refugees since 1947, and others demanding more fair treatment for what is the majority of the population.
It’s not all desert…
The sparkling Red Sea in the south of Jordan is popular for snorkeling and boat tours. You can spin from the deck of the boat to see Jordan, Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia all at once. The water is warm and salty, making it comfortable and easy to float––appealing for even amateur snorkelers. The sea is known for clear waters and colorful fish, as well as numerous coral gardens (currently under restoration) and a shipwreck from World War II.
On the west side of the country, visitors from around the world flock to the Dead Sea for its healing mud and the surreal experience of floating without even trying.
At 1,410 feet below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth. It gets its name from its salinity––34.2%, or 9.6 times as salty as the ocean––which makes it impossible for most plants and animals to survive. It also makes it impossible to sink. The surrounding mud is rich with minerals, which are used in Dead Sea face and body masks and other spa treatments. While you probably can’t float in your bathtub, you can order Dead Sea mud masks for an at-home spa treatment.
But it is dry
Though a relatively wealthy country in the Middle East, Jordan is one of the poorest countries in the world in terms of water resources. Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria share the Jordan and Yarmouk Rivers, and Jordan has historically been short-shrifted in comparison to those countries. Jordan pulls much of its water from aquifers, which are shrinking rapidly (partially due to climate change and the country’s increasing population) and it doesn’t have the oil and gas deposits other Middle Eastern countries have to fund desalinating seawater.
In the desert, water is scarce, and in the cities it’s sometimes rationed. Tourists won’t run into issues at most hotels, but it’s a good idea to be conscious of your water use while in the country.
Bring your sweet tooth
Many of the desserts in Jordan, like much of the Middle East, are very sweet and syrupy, which is why Jordanians cut them with black tea. You will be offered tea often in Jordan, and saying yes is the polite thing to do.
Jordan’s national dessert, Knafeh, is made with soft cheese called nabulsi, wrapped in crushed phyllo dough and doused in rose water syrup with a topping of pistachios. Another popular dessert, harissa, is a semolina cake soaked in sugar water. And there’s plenty of baklava, almond cookies, and other treats. Most desserts contain nuts, so if you have a nut allergy, be vigilant.
Yalla means “let’s go” in Arabic and “habibi” is a term of endearment. Whether from your tour guide, new friends, or in movies and songs, you’ll hear the phrase “yalla habibi” often. It’s so catchy many tourists adopt it into their own vocabulary by the end of a trip.
Many Jordanians speak English, but other useful Arabic words include “shukran,” which means “thank you;” “la shukran,” which means “no thank you,” and is especially useful at markets; “salam,” meaning “hello”or “peace;” and “la afham,” to say “I don’t understand.”
All roads lead to Rome
Like so much of the Middle East, Jordan is home to extensive and well-preserved Roman ruins. Starting in 63 BC, the Nabataean Kingdom was under Roman rule for about four centuries. The Roman Decapolis, a league that included Amman (called Philadelphia under the Romans), Gerasa (Jerash), Gadara (now Umm Qais), and Arbila (Irbid).
Today, with its colonnaded streets, Arch of Hadrian, and numerous temples, the city of Jerash is one of the best-preserved Roman cities outside of Italy and even nicknamed “Pompeii of the Middle East.” In Amman, the Roman Temple of Hercules sits above the city, along with a large Roman amphitheater. Take a 360-degree virtual tour of Jordan’s Roman ruins here.
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Published October 26, 2023
Last updated January 9, 2024
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